I am sitting at the base of Youthful Indiscretion, a hard 5.11b climb in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. It is November and the desert is cool and cooling. The roaring, impossible-to-breathe heat of summer has simmered past and the wildflowers of youthful spring are a long-faded memory. Mild daytime temperatures draw climbers out from their hiding places and we scramble, like the kangaroo rats and jackrabbits, over the exposed granite of bulging boulders and monstrous monoliths. In a month or two, winter will be here; bringing frost and a heavy, frozen silence over the high desert. But for now, there is only a clear blue sky and the sublime sun. In the desert, fall is a perfection.
George is somewhere near halfway when he yells down a warning.
I immediately tighten my hands on the rope and shove my foot against the rock face expecting to brace a fall. I look up the length of the route and strain to spot him. Up the curving left-hand crack, across the step-around, past the overhanging roof, and I finally see him on the exposed face. Wearing a bright red shirt, he’s a solitary spot of color silhouetted against the brown, lifeless rock. He’s a hundred feet up and on the crux: the hardest part of the climb. He is in trouble.
“Watching!” I yell back.
The crux is a series of hard holds, pea-sized pinches set in a featureless face, where the rock turns from granite to glass and courageous climbers lose their grip and their nerve. His left arm is stretched out wide, tightly gripping a precarious hold. Even from this distance, I can see his sinewy forearm outlined with tendons and strain. He reaches out with his right, searching for something to grasp. Nothing. There’s nothing there.
“I might go!” he yells.
His left leg, perched on a toehold chip begins to pulse uncontrollably up and down. It is the tell-tale sign of a climber too full of adrenaline and exhaustion to control their muscles. He could fall at any second. I look down to check my belay device. It’s a small, hollow ring of metal the size of a fist. Designed to stop a falling climber through the friction of the rope running through it, it is worn rough with use. The once bright orange finish is rubbed off; showing only bare aluminum from the hundreds of climbs we’d been on. It is old, but it is functional and solid. I check the carabiner and ensure it is locked. Everything looks good and I tighten my grip on the rope a little more. A second later, he goes.
“Falling!” he yells.
Everything happens in slow motion. His fingers fail and his hand opens. His weight drops onto his feet and the sudden force rips his rubber-soled climbing shoes off the tiny flake he is standing on. He peels backward and drops into empty space. His body falls.
Five feet. Then ten. Then twenty. With a hard slam, the rope finally catches him in midair.
The sudden weight on the rope yanks me off my feet despite my efforts to brace and I am thrown against the rock with a smashing thud. I am momentarily stunned and my shoulder throbs a protest where it hit the wall, but I am otherwise unhurt. I look up to check on George. He is dangling awkwardly in midair, but he fell cleanly without hitting the wall. The rope had stretched to dissipate the fall force and the spring-loaded cam he set into the crack for protection held firm. Only his ego is bruised.
“You OK?” I yell up.
“I’m OK!” he yells back.
“No, I can’t pull the move!”
“You want to come down?”
There is a pause as he thinks about it. A few seconds pass, then he commands, “Yeah, lower me!”
I ease my grip on the rope. It feeds cleanly, and he is soon back on the ground.
We take a few steps away from the climb, away from possible rock fall, and George takes his helmet off. He claps his hands together and a small cloud of powdery white chalk explodes out from between them. He wipes his hands on his thighs, leaving fingertip streaks of white on his favorite faded green climbing pants. His t-shirt is dirty with dusty grime. Sweat covers his wrinkled forehead and drips down into the crow’s feet corner of his left eye. Reaching up, he wipes his head and runs his hand through his graying hair.
Concerned about the fall, I examine him closely. For a man in his fifties, he is in exceptional shape. Years of running hills built his lean legs and decades of climbing mountains built his powerful arms. His skin is covered in sunspots and lacquered in time. He stands with the easy grace of an athlete and the quiet confidence of a veteran. He looks back at me with tired eyes. There seems to be a knowing sadness in them.
“What happened?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I can’t pull the move. I don’t have any power anymore.”
He goes on. There’s only a small edge big enough for a couple fingers of one hand to stack onto and the foot placements are non-existent. Two feet above is a solid handhold. Between the two lies only empty space and the raw, visceral strength of the climber. The solution is straightforward: a one-handed, two-fingered pull up.
He looks down at the palms of his weathered hands. He rubs his right palm with his left thumb and examines it closely. The angle of his slightly cocked head and the intensity of his gaze reminds me of a fortune teller. I can almost see him reading his future in the criss-cross lines etched there. He traces the long crease, the line of life, with a slow, methodical motion and stops near the end of the line.
A long moment goes by and he shakes his head a little.
“I’m getting old,” he says.
I lean over to peer at his hands and he holds them out to me. I strain to see what he sees. I try to conjure up an image of the future, but it eludes me. I can only see his past in those hands.
I see his skin, wrinkled with weather and wear, but hardened by the holds and heights. Calluses cover the joints of his fingers and the flesh of his fingertips is peeling. I see a mottled mish-mash of scars. Some are familiar: like the long, angry gash that runs along the knife-edge of his palm, where he had abraded the skin jamming his hand into crack after crack on the east buttress of Mt. Emerson last season, when he bled so much his chalk had turned red. Or the deep circle near the center of his palm, where a sharp missile of rockfall had homed in from some unseen height and nailed him while he belayed me on Desolation Mountain a few years before that. I know the back of his hands tell the same story: the knuckles of his fists are black and dense where the scars have torn and healed and torn and healed again. I know one of those knuckles juts out farther than the others after being broken on some climb in Yosemite a decade ago.
But many other scars were a mystery to me: there was a ragged bite of something in the web of his left thumb, a crooked lightning bolt slash across his right middle finger, a slightly misshapen bend in his pinkie where a bone had broken and reset. They were the relics of a mysterious past, like the ancient petroglyphs etched into the rocks around us. They were the stories he only hinted at in the half-asleep car rides: Lightning Peak’s North Couloir, or Cerro Blanco’s West Ridge, or Austrian Direct on Mt. Fairweather. Sometimes, I would see his name in guidebooks: First Free Ascent: George Leigh, 1988, 5.11d. I’d ask him about it, and he’d just shrug his shoulders and say, “I was young and foolish.” Where he sees a falling future, I see an ever-climbing past.
I wasn’t having any of that quitter talk. I look at him squarely.
“Bullshit! Get your broken-down geezer ass back on the climb.”
George shoots angry eyes at me. A long second passes. I almost regret what I said. Then, he suddenly laughs.
“Fine! But if I get it, you owe me a beer.”
Laughing, we walk back over to the climb. We banter for a bit as we tie back into the rope dangling down from the climb.
“I thought you only drink Ensure.”
“When you get to my age, Ensure is like beer.”
“Then I’ll buy you a six-pack of Ensure.”
George looks relaxed as he climbs. His tendons are drawn into tight tension, but there is a loose lightness about him. I marvel at the beauty of his technique. It’s effortless and masterful. Every toehold is placed perfectly, every finger slots solidly. His arms are an ancient alchemy. His legs dance some dark devilry. And soon, he is back at the crux.
“Watch me!” he yells down.
The command is the same, but the voice is different. It’s steady. Confident. It’s the voice of experience and wisdom. I brace, but I know he won’t fall. He won’t ever fall. I look up and watch. I’m not watching for a fall, but watching a master at work.
His black, rubber-soled climbing shoes stick to some flawed flake and he stands upright. Without hesitation this time, he places the two fingers of his right hand on the problem hold and locks his thumb over them. With the deft grace of a ballerina and a sudden burst of some hidden, ageless power, he pulls. He launches upward, and he’s suddenly on top.
“Got it!” he yells down.
“Hell yeah!” I yell up.
Later, after I had flailed and failed, after I had given up, and after he had hauled me hand-over-hand past the move, we stood on top of the climb together.
Preparing to descend, I take the long loops of our rope between my outstretched arms and start to wind them into a backpack coil. The bright blue and white sheath has withered under the ageless sun and the slick newness has worn itself over the rough edges of craggy cliffs. Short strands of the outer nylon stick out in a fuzzy haze along its length. George walks over and picks up the other end. He squeezes the rope between his fingers testing for any weaknesses; looking for any dead spots.
“Problems?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says as he works his way through the coil toward me. “But maybe we should be retire it anyways. I fell pretty hard on it.”
I look down over the edge of the climb. From the top, the rock seems like slick, slippery death. I can see the blank emptiness of the crux. It is intimidating and it is impossible. At the bottom, a hundred and fifty feet down among the ragged rocks, I see our packs. They are far away memories: small in space and tiny in time. Without George, I couldn’t imagine trying something this hard.
I look over and he is gazing off toward the horizon, lost in his thoughts. He is squinting and the lines of his face seem a little deeper, but there’s a sage strength in his eyes and a relaxed sureness in his stance.
I shake my head. “It’s got another season or two left.”
“You think so?” he asks.
He looks over at me and smiles a broad, satisfied smile. The grin pulls back his weary wrinkles, and the crow’s feet disappear from the edges of his eyes. The years seem to fall away from his face. For a moment, he looks young and strong and happy. Under the clear blue desert sky, lit by the sublime soon-setting sun, he is a perfection.
“Damn sure, Old Man,” I reply.
Pretty damn sure.